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Washburn: Stalking Iowa wood warblers presents daunting task

For Iowa birding enthusiasts, it just doesn’t get any better than the month of May. The final curtain call of the spring migration, it’s a time when everything seems to arrive at once.

Spring migrants come in all colors, shapes and sizes. But of the more than 200 bird species that will nest in or migrate through our state, perhaps no single group presents a greater challenge to observe or correctly identify than that intriguing collection of tiny birds known as wood warblers.

Photographing these energetic little travelers is a tough proposition — an outdoor task that on some days, seems nigh onto impossible. Most warblers are hyper-active to the third degree; rarely staying in the same spot for more than a second or two.

Most only measure about four inches in length and, following a really big meal, weigh-in at around a third of an ounce. Attempting to photograph them usually means getting a lot of really good pictures of the empty twig where a warbler just was.

Experts agree that this year’s spring migration is one of the best in several years. But although hundreds of thousands of warblers are currently passing through our state, most folks — including those who enjoy the outdoors — are totally unaware of their presence. Warblers migrate at night and spend their days in deep cover hunting for insects.

For many species, the time spent in Iowa is brief. Most will nest in the wilderness forests of northern Canada and still have a long way to travel. For those outdoor enthusiasts who would cash in on this year’s migration, there is no time to waste.

Trip Tips: Whether you choose to observe warblers through a set of good binoculars or a camera lens, there are some basic tactics that can put you on the fast track to success. The first is to put yourself in the right place at the right time.

Start by looking for moist woodlands containing thick green understory at the ground level and a healthy canopy of tall, mature trees over the top. Warblers feed almost entirely on insect life. My (and the warblers’) favorite types of insect harboring understory are dense patches of dogwood, gooseberry, and ninebark. Oaks are a preferred canopy tree.

Although not a requirement, I prefer to already be in the woods at first light. It’s the coolest part of the day and both warblers and their prey are likely to be moving at their slowest pace.

Arriving at a likely looking spot, I take a stand and then listen and watch. Once you hear or see activity, slowly move to the spot and dig in. Wearing dark camo’ and remaining completely motionless will greatly increase your warbler close encounters.

Staying in one spot beats moving around. Be patient and let the birds come to you. Go after them and most of these shy little creatures will just slip deeper into cover; usually long before you are even aware of their presence.

Once you get the hang of it, “sitting tight” can result in incredible outdoor shows as warblers sing, preen, chase insects, and interact with other woodland bird species — often at a distance of mere feet. Today provided a classic example.

After sitting in one spot for only 20 or 30 minutes, I had already observed five species of warblers, a least flycatcher, two wrens, and several white-throated sparrows — all within 20 feet of my position. If I had just walked through that same area, I may or may not have seen any of those birds.

One last tip. Don’t forget to bring the bird book. As stated earlier, warbler identification can present a daunting challenge. With more than 30 species to choose from, even the experts get confused.

My advice is to not get too hung up on identification. No one needs to know the Latin name of every creature in the forest. I recommend that you just sit back, relax and enjoy the show. You don’t have to be a trained ornithologist to have fun watching wild birds. You just need to be there.


Features
Jensen: Reel in more largemouth bass

Largemouth bass can be found in lots of lakes, rivers, and ponds across the country. In southern areas bass catching has been in full swing for weeks, but in the Midwest the bass action is just starting.

In fact, in some states that have an open and closed season for bass fishing, the legal season for catching bass is just starting. Here's how you can take advantage of the outstanding fishing for largemouth bass that can be found across the Midwest.

The first thing to consider is that much of this early bass action will be in shallow water. Whenever you're fishing in shallow water, for any species, you must be quiet. Fish in shallow water are very spooky, so any loud or unusual noise, and any movement will spook them.

Shut the outboard off before you enter the area to be fished and move in slowly with the electric motor. Keep the power on the electric on low: Move in slowly and quietly and avoid giving the electric bursts of power.

You'll also want to make long casts, especially in clear water. Again, if you make long casts and stay away from the bass, you'll be less likely to spook them.

Lures that enter the water quietly will be productive. A lure that lands on the water quietly attracts bass, while a lure that splashes down loudly will spook them, especially if it lands close to the fish.

A real winner for bass in the spring is a plastic worm rigged wacky style. Wacky rigging is simply hooking a worm right in the middle. You use a larger sized hook, about a 2/0 size for a 5-inch worm. You don't use any weight, as you want the worm to sink slowly.

Cast the worm around rushes, docks, trees lying in the water, or anything that provides the fish with some cover. Bass like to be around stuff, especially when they're shallow.

This wacky rigged worm is a pretty light bait, so some anglers like to throw it with spinning gear. I use braid in the 65-pound test range much of the time: P-Line XTCB is my favorite. It has virtually zero stretch so hooksets are solid, and it casts very well. If visibility is a concern, use Tactical Fluorocarbon in the 15- or 20-pound test size. Again, minimal stretch, and this stuff is as invisible as it gets.

An Impulse Dip-Stick worm doesn't have much tail action, which makes it perfect for wacky rigging. Cast it out, let it sink a bit, then start a twitching retrieve. You might want to let it rest on the bottom for a second or two, and sometimes an even longer rest is good, but most of the time you'll want to keep it moving.

In colder water give it light twitches, as the water warms move it more aggressively. Experiment with colors, but in clear water start with a watermelon color. I also like White Shad because white is easy to see, and sometimes strikes are light. If your bait disappears, set the hook.

Right now is an outstanding time to be on the water. The weather is usually nice and the bass are biting, and that creates a wonderful afternoon of fishing.